The Idea of the Renaissance

   Historical categories are always fictions in some sense or another. Many historical categories, such as "Ming China" are purely descriptive and essentially say little, taking their name from an accident in history, such as the rise and duration of the Ming dynasty in China. Others, such as "the classical world," are not descriptive terms but interpretations and value judgements designed to make the historical period somehow meaningful as a whole. These categories are always placed on the period in hindsight: they are given not so much to explain the past as they are to explain the relationship of the present with the past. Historical categories, then, are ideas that express a culture's own sense of itself and its position in history; they often have little to do with the real historical experience of the period they pretend to explain.

   In European historiography ("the writing of history"), perhaps the most value-laden and contested historical category is the "Renaissance." First coined in 1867 by Jakob Burckhardt in his book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, the term has come to dominate our consciousness of what the historical experience of this period was. The Renaissance, as far as this book is concerned, is conceived as a departure from the Middle Ages, a fracture point where European culture suddenly changed into a new and different culture. There are two important aspects to this change, according to Burckhardt: the revival of classical learning, character, and life (hence the "rebirth" or "renaissance" of the classical world) and the beginning of the modern age. For in reviving classical learning, the Italians of the Renaissance created the prototype of modern culture. It's important to realize that this idea of the Renaissance was formulated to stress the uniqueness of modern European culture, as something new on the face of human culture. In formulating a beginning for modern culture, Burckhardt was also arguing that modern culture wass not: anything that occurred between the decline of the classical world and the Renaissance—hence, the idea of the Renaissance also created the idea of the "middle ages," a period between the classical period and the Renaissance.

   While the term "Renaissance" has remained glued to this period, after Burckhardt many scholars rebelled against the ideas that were represented by this term. For these scholars, of whom the most important is Paul Oskar Kristeller, the Renaissance has more in common with the Middle Ages than it is different. The Renaissance continues and develops cultural and historical patterns begun several centuries earlier. These rebellious scholars like to date the Renaissance further and further back, from the mid-fourteenth century to the thirteenth to the twelfth to the eleventh and so on.

   In recent decades, the advent of New Historicism among cultural historians such as Stephen Greenblatt has unwittingly revived the Burckhardt position. For New Historicists, the term Renaissance is an invalid term for which they substitute "The Early Modern," a historical period that encompasses all of European history from the Italian Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Like Burckhardt, they see the meaning and value of this period in relation to what follows, that is, modernity. At some point European culture broke with the past and emerged into the modern world; like Burckhardt, the New Historicists place this beginning in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Again, the primary task of this category is to explain the present. New Historicists focus on issues of gender, ethnicity, nationaliaty, race, and subjectivity (the experience of being an individual); the unique configuration of power, gender, race, and subjectivity in the modern world owes its origins to new practices, rather than reborn practices, in the Early Modern period.

   These ideas, however, don't very accurately reproduce the historical experience of the Italian Renaissance / Early Modern period. The continuities with the medieval world are so pervasive that separating the Italian Renaissance / Early Modern from the medieval world is an impossible task. The origins of the modern world are as fully rooted in the medieval world as they are in the Italian Renaissance.

   One other alternative is to take a multicultural view of European history. The history of the European Middle Ages is, you might say, the history of the discovery of Europe. All during the classical period, Europe is a heterogenous, multicultural society with all the trappings of that multiculturalism: conflicting cultural notions of power, gender, ethnicity, religion, language, and so on; negative definitions of other cultures; ethnic rather than regional self-definition, and many more. This was the situation at the beginning of the medieval period, what you might call the "multicultural middle ages." The middle ages, however, circumscribes a larger historical process in which an idea of a common ethnicity or cultural identity begins to emerge from out of this multiculturalism—this is an idea of Europe and European culture. Ethnicity begins to include self-definition against non-Europeans, such as Muslims, Byzantines, and North Africans, many of them cultures that the classical world saw itself as continuous with. This process, "the discovery of Europe," or better yet, "the monocultural middle ages," roughly corresponds to the last centuries of the middle ages. If you are to think of the Italian Renaissance / Early Modern as having a distinct historical character, that historical character seems to be the final construction of an idea of Europe. For the culture, literature, and arts of the Italian Renaissance / Early Modern gave Europe a set of practices that it could identify as uniquely its own. Here's a kind of radically new idea: if the later Middle Ages is largely about the "discovery of Europe," you might think of the Italian Renaissance / Early Modern and its aftermath as the "colonizing of Europe." The two processes, of course, are not distinct and separate processes.

   That's the idea animating this module's presentation of the Italian Renaissance / Early Modern. Much of the revival of classical learning, so important to Burckhardt, has this larger object of creating a standard for European culture. Standards are also sought, however, in medieval traditions; it's not always so easy to separate the revival of classical learning from a concomitant revival in medieval learning. In line with the New Historicist rewriting the period, the Italian Renaissance / Early Modern is largely concerned with forging a cultural identity against other cultures, such as Africans, Muslims, Turks, Asians, and later, Americans. Ethnicity, which at the beginnning of the middle ages was initimately tied to cultural practices and so a very plastic notion, begins to take on rigid formations. The Italian Renaissance / Early Modern also sees growing standardization in individual experience, gender relations, domestic power, and class relationships. The larger pattern, however, narrated in these next few chapters is the solidification of the monocultural Europe, a process beginning in the dimmest recesses of medieval history and finalized both triumphantly and shamefully in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries.

Next . . .
Backgrounds to the Italian Renaissance

World Cultures

1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999